tek's rating: meh and three quarters

When a Stranger Calls (R)
IMDb; Mill Creek Entertainment; Rotten Tomatoes; Sony Pictures; TV Tropes; Vudu; Wikipedia
streaming sites: Amazon; iTunes; Vudu

Caution: spoilers.

This came out in 1979. I didn't see it until 2018, when I got a double feature DVD that includes this and the 2006 remake. While watching it, I couldn't quite recall if this had been a theatrical movie or a TV movie, but I guessed the latter, because it definitely looked like that, to me. But I was wrong, it was theatrical. (There was a TV movie sequel in 1993, called "When a Stranger Calls Back," which I haven't seen and probably never will.)

It begins with a young woman named Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) coming to the house of Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis, to babysit their two children while they go out for the evening. Jill receives a series of creepy phone calls from a man who repeatedly asks if she's checked the children. She hasn't, because Mrs. Mandrakis had told her they were already asleep and getting over colds, so she should try not to wake them. But I don't really buy that as an excuse for Jill to continue not checking on them, no matter how many times this weirdo calls. (At one point, after a maddeningly long time, she finally does start going upstairs to check on them, but stops when the phone rings yet again.) She calls the police a couple of times, and they finally agree to trace the call, if she can keep the caller on the line the next time he calls. Which she does. And, as you could probably guess, they discover that the call was coming from inside the house! ...Anyway, the cops show up, and find that the kids have been dead for hours. The killer, Curt Duncan, is still up in their room, and they arrest him. He ends up in a mental institution. I guess it's a good thing Jill didn't check on the kids, otherwise she'd be dead, too. But that doesn't really make it bother me any less that she didn't. I'm glad she's alive, but I still don't think it makes any sense.

The movie then flashes forward seven years. The police lieutenant who had been in charge of the earlier case, John Clifford (Charles Durning), is now a private investigator. When Duncan escapes from the asylum, Dr. Mandrakis hires Clifford to find Duncan. He will receive some help from a police lieutenant named Charlie Garber, who had also been involved in the Duncan case seven years ago. Meanwhile, Duncan goes to a bar at night, where he tries to start a conversation with a woman named Tracy Fuller (Colleen Dewhurst). She repeatedly rebuffs him. When he refuses to leave her alone, another patron comes over and insists he leave. He refuses, so the guy beats him up and drags him out of the bar. Then Tracy walks home, and is followed by Duncan, who suddenly appears in the hallway outside her apartment, and says he wants to apologize. Oddly enough, she says she should apologize, because she didn't mean for him to get beaten up. (I mean, I can understand that, but it's really not her fault. And she should be totally creeped out that he followed her.) Then she just leaves her door open when she goes in to answer the phone. I have no idea why she didn't close and lock it. And when he comes in, she still doesn't seem at all concerned, even though she tells him to leave. (I suppose it makes some sense that she was putting on a brave face, but that's really not something I'm used to seeing, in movies like this.) Finally, he does leave, after she agrees to "maybe" have coffee with him the next day.

Clifford's search for Duncan begins with a trip to the asylum, where he talks to a doctor. He asks a few questions, which she says are all answered in the folder she's given him. Clifford acts deeply annoyed at that, which made no sense to me. I'd think he should be grateful for her thoroughness. But I got the impression he was just kind of an ass. Then he goes around on the streets, showing people a picture of Duncan and asking if they've seen him. One homeless guy had, but he's not particularly helpful. Eventually Clifford goes to Tracy's apartment, though it wasn't clear to me how he found out she had any connection to Duncan. (I may have missed something, so I won't assume it's another example of the movie not making much sense.) But he gets really annoyed at her, too. He shouts through her door, and lies about having a badge, to get her to open the door. So, my perception of him as an ass grew stronger. But he soon calms down and tells her about Duncan, and she agrees to help. Later that night, Tracy goes to her usual bar, and when she goes home, Clifford follows at a discreet distance, to see if Duncan follows her. But it turns out Duncan is already hiding in her apartment. When he accosts her, she screams, and Clifford breaks in and gives chase, but ultimately loses him.

We then see that Jill is now married, with two young children of her own. She and her husband, Stephen, go out to dinner, leaving their kids with a sitter. Somehow, Duncan learns where they are, and calls Jill at the restaurant with the same creepy question he'd used seven years earlier. So she breaks down in a panic, they rush home, along with the police. But the kids are fine and there's no sign of Duncan. Of course, he will show up later that night, after the police are gone and everyone's gone to bed. But... I feel like I've said way too much already. I won't say how it ends.

Sigh. I really wanted to like this movie. But I just couldn't. There were a few things I kind of liked about it, but so much of it just seemed so unrealistic. I know one can't expect a great deal of realism from horror movies, but still. I felt like this went beyond the normal level of inexplicable behavior from characters. Well, hopefully I'll like the remake better.

thriller index